The other day I found myself in the most unlikely places: with my high school friend in the back of a cab …
It was late at night, and as the car snaked through Midtown Manhattan, his face flickered in the glow of flashing tents. When we stopped at a red light, he leaned over to whisper in my ear. “I don’t love you,” he said. “And I never have.”
The end of the scene was identical to any short story I wrote as a kid: I woke up. It was all a dream. But as I passed my day, I was persecuted. Why did my subconscious want to dance with someone I haven’t seen or spoken to in almost 20 years?
Joan Didion wrote: “We would be well advised to continue to nod to the people we used to be, whether we find them an attractive company or not.” As much as I adore Joan’s canon, this point has never been my forte.
My past has been shameful at times. They wore strange outfits and said uncomfortable things, then stayed up late and worried about it. You have sometimes made mistakes in assessment which, although necessary for learning, I would prefer not to experience again. But lately, in those months that I’ve spent mostly at home, I’ve been forced to face them – the parade of the people I used to be. With no new memories to hold onto, my brain re-enacts the old ones, like syndicated reruns of a show that hasn’t aged well.
For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a wave of vivid, bizarre dreams due to changes in stress and activity, sleep patterns, and pretty much every facet of our lives. For me, memories that have long been forgotten have reappeared. They not only appear when I am asleep, but often in the midst of a harmless, everyday task.
Scooping up coffee grounds brings out Technicolor images of my playground in elementary school, while taking out the trash reminds me of Halloween at 10 years old when I dressed like a picnic with plenty of rubber ants. And don’t even make me take a shower. There are flashbacks from what I said. What I would have liked to say. The boss who could never find the stapler. Another boss who threw things and gave me names. I quit the job too early. The job I stayed at for too long. There’s a lot more where this came from, but we’ll leave it at that.
My former self has a lot to say, and it turns out they didn’t go far. You live in me like a matryoshka doll, and fashion becomes more regrettable with every shift. The more time I spend with my past, the more I discover that the embarrassment goes both ways. Not only do I discover old disappointments, but old dreams too – things I wanted but was too afraid to try. My younger self wants to know what happened and I don’t have a suitable answer.
I decide the only way out is to confront them like a kind ghost. Since Didion was right about all of this, I begin to keep a notebook. If the memories can live on paper, I think maybe they won’t feel the need to walk around my head. Sometimes I feel lighter In other cases, I feel like I’ve immortalized exactly what I wanted to forget. Like personality, it is an imperfect science.
Where I cannot write, I look outside. Whenever I’m too involved in my internal chatter, there is a game I enjoy playing. I look out of my city window, which offers a glimpse of many other city windows where little glowing boxes of life take place. I imagine what the people behind each of these boxes are stressed out about, sad about and looking forward to. I feel connected and happy, insignificantly small. It’s like the opposite of Instagram: actual, unedited realms of humanity.
I’ve been playing a similar game with my memories lately. I look out the window and imagine all the rooms I’ve occupied, all the places and people I’ve been. There I am: at five, at twelve, at twenty. In a quantum universe, I imagine that I am still there, albeit with the benefit of experience. I am slowly discovering that I am not a threat to myself.
My past reminds me that we are not a constant entity (and thank God for that). We are the sum of our experiences. We are both before and after, both phoenix and ashes. Even when it looks like the landscape is stagnating, we’re constantly being reinvented, like the pesky upgrades that threaten to overtake my phone. Finally, I realize: My former self is not (only) here to bother me, you are also here to keep me company.
I wish I could tell you that I have happily merged and made peace with my past, that I can pass my days (and nights) without the shudder of memories. But that would be a lie. Still, we’re all a little closer to nodding terms. Maybe this is the best I can hope for.
Have you experienced elevated dreams or memories these days? Are you nodding to your former self?
PS Five words that changed everything and how did your life surprise you?